Friday, 11 May 2012

The meaning of life, the universe and everything

by Andrew Jones

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This question has had philosophers, other respected thinking persons and anyone bothered to think for a few moments, scratching their heads for quite sometime. It has been the subject of numerous comedies, films and books. Indeed popular culture seems to have lapped up the mysticism. Yet we seem to have missed the point of it all in this modern perspective. Perhaps our curiosity has ever been clouded by that dreaded anti-philosophy: consumerism. Or perhaps we have simply lost interest. Even so (for me at least) the question is one which remains compelling, yet still as baffling as it first was. So let us try and make some headway as to the purpose of the universe and, at least for a few moments, try to join those other head-scratchers in searching for the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.

When addressing the question, it would possibly be best to try to work from a firm basis of knowledge. The universe itself was created from a Big Bang which took place some 13.7 billion years ago (in theory anyway). The most current theories of the Universe suspect that it is not alone, with a collection of universes forming one multi-verse. Whilst currently much of the mass of the Universe is unaccounted for, all scientists agree that it is constructed of matter. This matter is divided into elements, which are listed in the periodic table. The universe itself may (or may not) have been created by a God, although it's unlikely that anyone will ever have any definite answers on that question, at least not for a long time. Human life appeared just over two hundred thousand years ago on Planet Earth. It is this sort of understanding of the existence of the universe which forms the most solid basis for searching for the purpose---especially when considering a more scientific approach to the purpose of life, particularly from biologists such as Richard Dawkins.

The atheistic perspective has offered very few attempts to answer the meaning of life---generally because that sort of reasoning is associated with the religious understanding of the universe. This  answer holds that humans have one purpose: to reproduce in order to continue the human race and pass on our genetic information, in effect acting as part of a genetic conveyor belt stretched out in one long line of people. Certainly, biologically, the explanation seems somewhat reasonable when considering the brutality of nature. Yet, I hear you cry, what is the purpose of passing on genes? Why do it?

Sadly, the imagination of Richard Dawkins hasn't attempted that question so, at least for the moment, that answer eludes us. Another flaw in such an argument is its lack of appeal. Many, especially those more sentimental among us, find the notion of a wrought biological purpose to be cold and bleak to say the least. So where else do the more scientific among the atheists stand? Possibly one of the most infamous atheist philosophers, Bertrand Russell, offered his own unique insight into the question. Russell argued that there exists no higher purpose for the universe than the fact that “the universe is just there, and that is all”---a bit pessimistic really when you think about it: a universe which simply existed for nothing, no higher purpose, no reason, just existed.

This belief in a universe lacking any higher purpose does have its benefits. This stance does in some respects, incur the fewest weaknesses; whereas theistic explanations tend to rely on a God, those of philosophers such as Russell require little in the way of proof. Russell's explanation also ties in well with the beliefs of atheists such as Richard Dawkins that although, on a biological level, there may be a purpose, there exists no real higher purpose. This explanation, however, leaves the Universe somewhat empty, something without any reason, just a floating meaningless lump. Although there are a number of benefits, this form of explanation does lack imaginative appeal. Perhaps this is why, aside from Douglas Adams, popular culture has widely left this form of explanation well alone. For any reader who has not become familiar with the story, at the least I well recommend a delve into the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Continuing on from the meaning of life from an atheist perspective, the world of philosophy certainly provides an array of explanations. Early philosophers such as Irenaeus, stumbled on what has become a recurring theme in potential explanations for the meaning of life. This theodicy suggested that life is simply part of a larger process, which lead to the development of an individual. This development, due to Irenaeus' strong faith, led to growing in the likeness of God. But the concept itself, of a life's purpose to grow and develop, does seem to present a likely explanation. Such a view accounts for the ways in which humans do seem to progress over a lifetime, although the question remains as to what this goal is. This aim has been disputed by philosophers for centuries. From Kant's suggestion of a Summum bonum, which humans aim for, to the views of Christian theists that a life's development is inherently to decide which of us goes to Heaven and which of us goes to Hell. Certainly, progression is likely to feature in an explanation, if there were ever to be one.

As Douglas Adams answered in his book, the meaning of life is 42. Yet, more to the point, what is the question? Thinking about the puzzle of life does tend to make us miss the point that we do not really even understand the question we are really asking. This so-called question has been referred to in various ways, for example the ultimate question, the question of the Universe, the meaning of life and a whole host of other forms. None of these offer, however, any universal question which we are all trying to answer; instead, they seem to try to address different issues. To simply take two of these: the meaning of life considers a vastly different subject from the meaning of the Universe, however quite often the two are confused. In this article the aim has generally centred around the meaning of life, yet this also plays into the meaning of the Universe as well. So what could offer a suitable question for which all aspects are addressed? The subjects which are highlighted in the questions above certainly deserve to be included. When looking at the exploration of the biological means, the search for a higher purpose seems of crucial importance. Therefore, a question which is likely to begin to address all the issues should focus mainly on the higher purpose of the universe itself. When considering the vast inferiority of life, surely spending so much time considering it does leave us missing the bigger picture. So, a question well worth addressing is whether or not the Universe itself has a higher purpose?

Religious sources of authority, particularly the Bible, seem unusually quiet on the subject of the meaning of life. Despite the more obvious suggestion, that life is simply about gaining entrance to heaven, is there really any other answer given by Religion? Martin Luther believed that, to gain salvation, life must be lived with faith in God. Perhaps this could offer a religious meaning to life, that life is simply to be lived in reverence of God. Widening this explanation however, such a meaning seems to reflect pretty poorly on God. That life is about worship. In our modern perspective, this notion does seem at best slightly ghastly. Yet, working back through the generations, such an outlook on the purpose of life would be common. Has a growingly militant atheism made such a notion inconceivable to many? Returning to the main objection to this, what sort of a God would create life simply for everlasting gratification? Certainly such a God could be described as a narcissist, intent on making himself the centre of worship. However, whilst such an explanation of life would have been quite palatable for generations gone by, for the modern audience such an explanation is considerably less popular.

Aristotle was one of the few early philosophers to begin to make distinctions about the definition of existence. When considering the meaning of life, this definition most importantly extends to the question of purpose: the Final Cause. Yet building on Aristotle's theory of the four causes, Aquinas stumbled across one of the more convincing suggestions for the overall purposes to life: Eudaimonia (in other words, happiness). Aquinas intertwined this explanation for the purpose of life with his own system of ethics, Natural Law. However, when considering the concept of happiness as an explanation for the meaning of life, it certainly sounds convincing. Admittedly such an explanation falls flat when searching for a higher purpose to the universe, but, considering this potential answer from a religious perspective, few would challenge a God who had created life with the overall purpose of increasing happiness.

For seven and a half million years, this stupendously powerful, office-block of a machine had whirred. When it came to announcing what it had discovered, crowds had quite understandably gathered. "You aren't going to like it," Deep Thought warned. "Forty-two," it said, with infinite majesty and calm.

Having explored the explanations proposed by the various different spectators, surely it is time to consider whether or not the meaning life could possibly be 42. Douglas Adams never revealed the origins of such as simplistic explanation yet numerous theories exist. Indeed Stephen Fry, who Adams confided in, has commented that such an answer “does explain the secret of life, the universe, and everything." The answer, it seems, will continue to remain a mystery as Fry has vowed to take the reasoning to his grave. Therefore, are we letting the answer to the universe slip through our fingers? As a great admirer of Stephen Fry, I feel that his comments do inspire confidence as to the power which the number 42 wields in explaining the meaning of life.

So, there we go. The meaning of life thoroughly explored (at least as far as I am prepared to explore it). Is it really possible for us to draw conclusions? Certainly, it seems religious persuasion plays a major role in shaping people's perceptions of what constitutes an acceptable answer. Perhaps the best explanation of sorts is emulated in the comments of Slartibartfast: “Hang the sense of it and keep yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy than right any day.”


  1. Actually it was not Immanuel Kant who originally suggested "Summon Bonum", although he wrote and developed on it. It was already around from the medieval philosophers.

  2. Surely the answer is individual to each person; like what is beauty. Trying to attribute one answer to a question is very human however, in science there are multiple laws governing matter or in the words of Mr Thomas "stuff".

    Can't the same be said about the meaning of life?


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